Health and Science

Uncertainty looms over Asia's top events as coronavirus fears grip

Key Points
  • There are rising concerns within the travel and events industry that the economic impact of the new coronavirus will be felt in the coming months.
  • Singapore said the outbreak has had a "significant impact on visitor arrivals" which look set to decline by about 25% to 30%, according to the Singapore Tourism Board.
  • Postponing upcoming events could be "pretty damaging" to the Hong Kong economy, said the chairman of Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Industry Association, Stuart Bailey.
Visitors viewing artwork at Art Basel on March 27, 2019 in Hong Kong. The 2020 event in Hong Kong was cancelled due to concerns over the spread of a new coronavirus that has killed hundreds, most of them from China.
Theodore Kaye | Getty Images

Events across Asia have been postponed or cancelled, as mounting fears over the spread of a new coronavirus prompt organizers to scale back — or completely withdraw — their plans.

From art shows to golf tournaments, countries like Hong Kong, Singapore and Thailand have seen major events called off.

The annual Art Basel Hong Kong 2020, one of Asia's most prestigious art fairs planned for March 19-21, was cancelled "due to the severe outbreak and spread of the new coronavirus," according to organizers.

Meanwhile, both the 2020 Honda LGPA Thailand in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, and the 2020 HSBC Women's World Championship in Singapore, were also called off. Both events were set to take place at the end of February. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) said on Monday the decision was made due to "continued health concerns" over the spread of the virus.

As of Wednesday, Hong Kong had 49 confirmed cases, including one death. The number of confirmed cases in Singapore reached 47, while Thailand reported 33 cases so far.

SARS and now

There are rising concerns within the travel and events industry that the economic impact of the new coronavirus will be felt in the coming months.

Stuart Bailey, chairman of Hong Kong Exhibition & Convention Industry Association, said the Asian financial hub has postponed all MICE events for now. MICE refers to the Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions industry.

While most can be rescheduled throughout the year, he noted that it will become harder to work around a backlog of events in the coming months.

Events in Hong Kong are being rescheduled amid coronavirus outbreak: Industry body
Hong Kong events are being rescheduled amid coronavirus outbreak: Industry body

Making reference to the 2003 SARS outbreak — which dealt a heavy blow to Asian economies including Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan — he said the likely postponement of events that were to be held in March and April will be "pretty damaging" to the Hong Kong economy.

"If events need to be held in the summer months ... July and August, maybe this is one of those years — you just do your best and muddle through," Bailey told CNBC last week.

The disease — now officially named COVID-19 — is believed to have started in a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and has since infected more than 40,000 people and killed over 1,000 people in China alone. Most of the deaths and cases occurred in mainland China.

Coronavirus impact on Singapore

Singapore has not been spared either.

The biennial Singapore Airshow, Asia's largest aerospace and defense event, chose to carry on despite concerns about the virus. However, more than 70 exhibitors pulled out before the airshow started on Feb. 11. They included major exhibitors like American aerospace and defense firm Lockheed Martin, and Canadian business jet manufacturers Bombardier.

The Singapore Tourism Board said on Tuesday: "The Novel Coronavirus has had a significant impact on visitor arrivals, especially from China, which accounts for around 20 per cent of international visitor arrivals."

"Based on the current situation, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) expects visitor arrivals this year to fall by about 25 to 30 per cent," according to a statement by the government agency, which helps promote the country's tourism industry.

Singapore's conference sector 'much more prepared' in the face of new coronavirus
Singapore conference sector 'much more prepared' in the face of new coronavirus

While the impact of the current outbreak on Singapore's MICE industry is still uncertain, an estimated 40% to 45% of event attendees dropped out at the height of the SARS outbreak in May 2003, Aloysius Arlando, president of the Singapore Association of Convention and Exhibition Organisers and Suppliers (SACEOS), told CNBC in early February.

Having gone through previous episodes of SARS, the H1N1 swine flu and even the regular haze episodes of bad air quality, the Singapore MICE industry as a whole is more prepared, Arlando said.

He said comfort can be taken in the swift response put into place by the various government-led agencies, as well as what his organization SACEOS is doing as a "coordinated effort" to work with the Singapore authorities.

Fresh blow to Hong Kong

Bailey said the new outbreak is going to deal another blow to Hong Kong's MICE industry, which was already "quite badly" hit after months of pro-democracy demonstrations disrupted businesses, transportation and daily life.

The difficulty at the height of the protests was in getting international participants to come to Hong Kong, since there was a lot of fear about "what they'd seen on the television," he said.

But at least people living in Hong Kong still attended events. Now, in the midst of the new coronavirus outbreak, not only is the international community staying away, the locals are also being told to stay home, Bailey said.

"Look, if you're trying to be as careful as you can, and hunt for masks and wash your hands every 5 minutes, would you really want to go and sit in a convention hall with hundreds of other people who you don't know where they've been or what they've got?" Bailey said.